Better analysis of the Parable of the Talents

RoCa: Prov. 31:10-13,19-20,…; 1 Thess. 5:1-6; Matt. 25:14-30

Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary
The Parable of the Talents is another of the parables that can yield very different interpretative results — conceivably because Jesus himself used parables multiple times in differing contexts (as witnessed to by Luke’s quite different context for this parable). Yet in 2020 I’m inclined to make a decision that narrows the choices based on a conviction that I believe is an element of a New Reformation: Reading the Gospels, and Jesus behind them, as an anti-imperialist movement. If Jesus comes to save us from our violence by empowering a new Way of being human, then it includes our politics and economics. The politics and economics of Empire represent a dead-end way of being human, and the Parable of the Talents can most fruitfully be read with this in mind.
In the context of Matthew’s telling of the Gospel of Jesus, we have championed here as an important interpretative key of reading Matthew that he continually contrasts God’s coming reign in Jesus with violent human reigns. We see this right from the beginning with Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth, contrasted with Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. And the key verse we have pointed to numerous times is Matthew 11:12 (see Advent 3A for starters), where Jesus straightforwardly tells us that the kingdom of heaven is revealed in choosing to suffer violence, while human regimes are only happy to take it by force.

In the parables of judgment, then, we have noticed two things: (1) The lords and kings in these parables are emphasized as men, not stand-ins for God. Even if they have positive characteristics or do some positive things, they are still human beings with flaws, not representatives of God’s reign of perfect love that even reaches out to enemies. We have noted in four previous parables that Matthew uses a strange double designation, such as “a man, a king,” to make sure we know this is just a man (Proper 19A20A22A, and 23A). In this parable Matthew foregoes the double designation at the outset and simply begins, “a man,” telling readers in the subsequent verses that he is also a master of slaves. So even though we may glean some positive aspects from this master, we also need to be wary of his faults as a typical oppressive human lord over others. (2) If there is a “Christ-figure” in these parables, then, it is typically someone suffering the violence, such as the man expelled from the King’s Banquet for not wearing the appropriate garment (22:11-13). In this parable that may be the third servant more than the others (though we will question this below).

For this way of reading the Parable of the Talents, I highly recommend Sarah Dylan Breuer‘s reading (see her page for Proper 28A). It follows the hermeneutic we have used for Matthew’s parables of judgment, which resists seeing the masters as a stand-in for God and instead sees them as illustrations of earthly kings and emperors, contrasting their kingdoms with the kingdom of heaven — the latter choosing to suffer the violence of the former. Breuer writes,
Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that GOd would commend, let alone imitate?  Is this the kind of behavior that God expects of God’s people? Heck no! If you’ve got any doubts of that, read what comes immediately after this story: read the prophesy (it isn’t a parable) of the sheep and the goats [Christ the King A], which tells us that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a “sinner’s prayer,” but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. [In short,] . . . its message is much closer to “care for those whom the world would leave destitute.” Reading the parable in the context in which it appears in Matthew tells us how Jesus finishes that thought: We shouldn’t be like the master in the parable because the world in which people like that come out on top is passing away.

An element of Breuer’s reading that has come into sharper focus for me in 2020 is the context of looking ahead to next week’s text. And, as she counsels, instead of calling it the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, I more clearly see it as the Prophecy of the “Son of Man” Judging the Nations. In fact, I’ve come to read Matthew 24-25 as a section in Matthew’s Gospel that’s collectively about prophesying the coming of the “Son of Man” — namely, the New Human Being who launches a new Way of being human. (See my page “Nuechterlein on Jesus as Fulfilling the ‘Son of Man’ Prophecy in Matthew’s Gospel” for a full accounting of reading Matthew 24-25 as a unit under this theme.)

In this context, Matthew 25:14-30 is the last of several parables between prophecies about the coming of the “Son of Man.” And its ending stands out from the intermezzo parables in two ways: it is the only one that doesn’t end with Jesus characterizing its message as something in the vein of, ‘Stay awake, be prepared, because you don’t know the time of his coming.’ In fact, it isn’t Jesus who gives the ending summary at all! In this parable, it’s the master in the parable who provides the concluding message and action:

’For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt 25:29-30).

How might we sum up the master’s little saying in today’s idiom? I suggest, “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” Thus, if one reads this parable in light of a challenge to imperialistic economics, we can easily imagine how this entire parable strikes Jesus’ disciples and his usual audience of Jewish peasants. They are completely outside of such economic arrangements. Even the servants in the parable are able to share in an incredible wealth the likes of which peasants will never see in their lifetimes. They live the reality of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. This parable represents an economics that they will never more fully share in, receiving a few drops of what “trickles down” (sound familiar?). To use a slightly different spatial metaphor, the parable portrays a system of wealth for which the vast majority of wealth is concentrated in the center, and Jesus and his disciples are on the margins — or even outside with the third servant, “where there will be a weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

In 2020, during the post-election conversations, I heard a phrase that’s apropos to reading the last two sections of Matthew 25 together (vv. 14-46). Try searching the Internet for the phrase “centering the margins,” or a close facsimile. Links to many justice organizations pop-up with a message of reforming our economics of laissez-faire capitalism in which so much wealth is concentrated at the center, an economics of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, an economics for which too many people are out on the margins or effectively outside a realistic chance of partaking in the wealth at the center. I believe that the Parable of the Talents is showing us precisely this kind of dead-end economics; and then the prophecy of the New Human Being judging the nations shows us the remedy: centering the margins. 

There’s one last detail to consider about this week’s parable. Is the expelled third servant a Christ figure who is suffering the violence of this unjust economic system? I would say, “No,” based on his own characterization of how he responds to his master.

First, he admits to being afraid of him. Jesus has a perfect love that casts out all fear. His willing self-sacrifice on the cross is not motivated by fear but by a love that casts out his otherwise understandable fear.

Second, the third servant’s fear seems to have led to what is usually does: a resentment that leads to negative behaviors like hoarding instead of generously sharing. Did he have cause for fearing a wealthy person who doesn’t reap what he sows, using other people so that he gets richer and the poor get poorer?

Certainly. But the call that issues from Jesus is to convert that fear to a love that motivates just action, like sharing his talent in a way that would have included those normally left out. Instead, he hunkers down and tries to keep his wealth to himself, a strategy that loses him his job and gets him cast out from access to any meaningful wealth.

In 2020 this parable falls the week after Dave Chappelle delivered an extraordinary monologue on Saturday Night Liveespecially the last several minutes when he spoke to Trump’s white voters who feel left out of America’s prosperity. He acknowledges the painful feeling that many of Trump’s supporters have been feeling as folks who are on the margins of an imperialistic economics centered on the wealthy. But the difference he names involves the response to that feeling. White folks, who are more recently feeling left out, let billionaires like Trump manipulate their fear into hatred of others, especially the people of color who have been left out for centuries. As a person of color, Chappelle witnesses to battling that feeling constantly but coming to a place of not hating others but hating the feeling — and then learning to respond to it more positively through things like forgiveness. He encourages them to “take n***** lessons.”

I think the third servant in this parable is more like the white supporters of Trump who end up being manipulated by fear, failing to lead to a more positive response. Followers of Jesus are called to something more positive: living in a love that casts out fear and boldly works for a justice of “centering the margins.”

… I see a fruitful strategy, even given what I see as a Matthean contrast between divine and human reigns, proceeding from the notion, “if you think this aspect of human reigns is good, then imagine what it looks like in God’s reign of perfect love.” For this parable, we might see how the first two servants had their creativity unleashed by their seeing positive aspects in their master. That’s good. Imagine how much better it can be when our master is actually the true God whose love is the very engine of creativity.

This is what I see James Alison doing in his remarkable essay “Unbinding the Gay Conscience” (available at his website and as chapter 7 in On Being Liked). There is a brilliant analysis of how one’s conscience is bound or unbound … and this parable provides a climactic illustration:

The key feature of this parable is that it is the imagination of the servants as to what their master is like which is the determining factor of their conscience and thus the wellspring of their activity. (OBL, 109)

For a gay person, the church’s teaching has meant a binding of conscience by a false god who says, “I want to love you, but I can’t love you as you are, because you are sinful and objectively disordered.” But the Unconditionally Loving God of Jesus properly begins to unbind the conscience: “Because I love you, you are relaxing into my love and you will find yourself becoming loveable, indeed becoming someone that you will scarcely recognize.”

Similarly in the parable, the third servant imagines a master who does not like him and so imagines a double bind, while the first two servants, perceived their master’s regard for them as one of liking them enough to be daring them and encouraging them to be adventurous, and so, imagining and trusting that abundance would multiply, they indeed multiplied abundance.

In 2017 my sermon used more of this interpretative strategy in introducing the congregation to a theme of the New Reformation: that God is completely nonviolent. If we focus on the element of how the first two servants see their master, then a contrasting extension of this parable is to imagine a God who is loving instead of harsh.

Bernard Brandon ScottHear then the Parable, ch. 9, pp. 219ff. … offers two interesting points, I think. (1) It’s most likely that Jesus’ original audience would have initially identified most strongly with the third servant. The average peasant did not look kindly on wealthy people who multiplied their wealth ‘without sowing,’ i.e., without honest labor. The prudent and just thing to do with one’s wealth was precisely to bury it. Jesus’ audience would have favored the actions of the third servant. Thus, Jesus’ conclusion to this story would have been a shocker. (2) So the original point of Jesus’ parable may have been to shock the audience into questioning the nature of the master:

A hearer is asked to choose between two competing images of the master: the explicit image put forward in the aphorism by the third servant, and the image implied in the actions of the first two servants. Is the master the hardhearted man of the third servant’s attack, or is he gracious and generous, as he was toward the first two servants? (p. 234)
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2011 a number of things came together for a new insight on these parables of Matthew 25 — namely, that they are about having a sense of urgency before the consequences of evil come home to roost. The Girardian insight is that it is always about human violence, not divine violence. The sense of urgency is not to make a decision for Christ to avoid divine punishment in hell.

The sense of urgency is to follow in Christ’s way of peace to strive for avoiding the next hell-on-earth round of human violence.
One of the elements that contributed to the new angle was the demise of Joe Paterno in the Penn State child sex scandal. For more than ten years, none of the leaders at Penn State had any urgency to stand against the evil of Jerry Sandusky. There were hellish consequences that came home to roost — with Joe Paterno’s consequences nothing compared to what dozens more boys suffered.

A last element was attending a viewing of the video documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, a documentary film produced by Katrina Browne for the PBS series Point of View. It tells the story of slave trade out of Rhode Island in the 18th and 19th centuries. DeWolf family descendants (Katrina Browne a DeWolf Herself) traveled the triangle route of their ancestors Rhode Island – West Africa – Cuba. A poignant moment is standing in the dungeon of a slave fortress in West Africa, and one of the DeWolf ancestors commenting about his own forebears, “It was an evil thing and they knew it was an evil thing and they did it anyway.”

I think that Scott’s focus on the master yields a preachable theme: which of two competing views of God do we choose: the fearsome God of the Sacred, or the gracious, forgiving God of the cross? 

This coincides with Alison’s reading of this parable, I think, in that the parable means to transform our imagination about who God is. If we remain trapped in imagining God as a fearsome God of vengeance, then we end up judged according to our own imaginations. But if we can imagine a gracious God, as the first two servants do, then both our actions and the consequences of our actions yield gracious results.

4. In 2002 the parish I was serving, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, was facing challenging times from being a white congregation in the midst of the so-called ‘changing neighborhood.’ In preaching the previous week’s Gospel (Proper 27A sermon) I had interpreted the parable in terms of seeing the bridegroom of the church as a gracious, welcoming person who would include the bridesmaids who ran out of oil, if they had simply come with the bridesmaids who still had oil. Instead, they showed their mistrust in him by foolishly running off in the middle of the night to find oil, returning in the dark and finding themselves shut out. In the situation of facing the continuing racism of our society, we still need to show trust in the one whose Good News of God’s reign seeks to embrace all peoples. This parable builds on the previous week by encouraging the risk-taking of growing in faith to meet the challenges of life in the church today..”

On Friday before preaching this text in 2005, I came across different readings that changed my mind (repentance) about my previous readings of this parable. Actually, it’s part of a journey that began with the struggle in interpreting the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding, Matt. 22:1-14 (Proper 23A). Marty Aiken‘s reading of that parable in a 2003 essay (“The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet”) refrains from reading the king as God. Matthew’s parables do not render for us the Kingdom of God but the “kingdom of heaven” — and the crucial verse in Matthew, in my opinion, is Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” In the Matthew 22:1-14, Aiken argues, and I agree, that the kingdom of heaven is represented by the man without his wedding garment who is thrown into the outer darkness at the end. Is it the same for this parable? Should we refrain from reading the master as Christ or God? Should we view the third servant who suffers the violence of his master as representing the kingdom of heaven? If I am to be consistent in my reading of Matthew’s Gospel, then I would argue “yes.”

Three years ago I was not yet reading Matthew in this way. Much of what is offered below still abides by the previous strategy, a common one in girardian hermeneutics, namely, to read it as a story of self-judgment. The three servants get their due rewards according to how they view their master. The third servant sees his master harshly and so brings the judgment upon himself that accords his view. The reading of self-judgment is an important insight from mimetic theory, and so I leave it for the reader to consider.

But there is still the problem of reading the master as God or Christ: even if we say the third servant sees a harsh master and so gets what he expects, the master still plays along with it. He treats the servant harshly. Is this the God we see in Jesus Christ? Does God give us the treatment we expect and bring upon ourselves? Or do we find in Jesus Christ a more gracious God than that? In the fall of 2005, since Marty Aiken’s paper on the King’s Son’s Wedding in 2003, I have been refraining from reading any major characters as God in all of the parables of the latter half of Matthew. To be consistent, we would also refrain from reading the master as God in this parable.

But it is Sarah Dylan Breuer‘s reading (see her page for Proper 28A) that really convinced me, taking in more of the elements of the parable and the context. She points out that the master’s comment in vs. 29 might be better translated with something more like the common contemporary phrase: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” This may be how it is in the real world of human economics, but it cannot be something Jesus is commending in this parable. Breuer writes:
Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God’s people? Heck no! If you’ve got any doubts of that, read what comes immediately after this story: read the prophesy (it isn’t a parable) of the sheep and the goats, which tells us that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a “sinner’s prayer,” but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. [In short,] …its message is much closer to “care for those whom the world would leave destitute.” Reading the parable in the context in which it appears in Matthew tells us how Jesus finishes that thought: We shouldn’t be like the master in the parable because the world in which people like that come out on top is passing away.

The kingdom of heaven is suffering the kind of impoverishing violence which the master in this parable dishes out. But in suffering, the kingdom of heaven shows this world’s powers of violent domination to be impotent compared to the Creator God whose abundant power of life raises the Son of Man on Easter morning.

On Proper 28A Sunday in 2005, the parish I served was also holding its annual “Stewardship Sunday.” And the timing was providential that I went to a “Ministry of Money” retreat on Friday and Saturday (see ministryofmoney.org). The Parable of the Talents is yet another parable in which Jesus talks about money, and the basic “Ministry of Money” retreat simply models how important it is for Christians to be able to talk about money in the context of faith. The leader for the retreat was Christian musician and songwriter Bryan Sirchio (see http://www.sirchio.com/). He articulated a basic distinction that really resonates for me. It comes from Riverside Church (Manhattan) preacher Ernest Campbell, when he asks, “Are we following Jesus or believing in Christ?” Sirchio has written a song articulating this question, called “Follow Me,” which also became a theme for me in preaching this text. At one in the song he sings,
Yes, we need to know what we believe,
to follow the Jesus who’s real
God save us from the Christ’s we create in our image
(you know what I mean…)
The Jesus who’s as left wing or right wing as we
The one who baptizes our cherished ideologies
The one who always seems to favor our side
against some enemy.

This parable can provide a good example of “the Christ we create in our image.” No doubt, from many pulpits the congregation will hear of a Christ who supports the current economics of tax-cuts to the rich, getting the money into the hands of those who can produce more with it, like the first and second servants. A left-wing version might be interpreting the “talents” allegorically to be something like God’s gracious generosity which faithful servants of Christ multiply and share with others. This is actually closer to what I’ve done in the past (though I think my “economics of faith” approach below avoids some of the pitfalls).

But what if we don’t read Christ or God anywhere in this parable but simply as Jesus making a comment on standard human economics for which, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” (a defensible interpretation of the master’s comment in verse 29). And the kingdom of heaven will be found with those who suffer from such economics. If we “follow Jesus,” that’s where we will find him, namely, with those left out when the rich get richer. Jesus’ life began in a barn, grew up in the poverty of Nazareth, spent a ministry among the poor and outcast, and finally let himself be handed over into the hands of the richest and most powerful of his nation to be judged as one completely on the outside, a godforsaken, blaspheming criminal

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